Liverpool’s long winter started at Selhurst Park with a 2-1 victory over Crystal Palace. Jurgen Klopp’s side were outplayed in the first half but a Sadio Mane goal four minutes into the second half put them in front and although Wilfried Zaha equalised with eight minutes remaining, Roberto Firmino snatched the points after a scramble in the area. Over the next 40 days Liverpool play 11 games. This will be a time for grinding out results, rotating the squad and eking every last bit of energy from the squad. They did not play well in south London but left with a satisfying win.
Liverpool started well and Roy Hodgson’s side saw little of the ball in the early exchanges but an error by Trent Alexander-Arnold signalled a change in the mood. The defender miscued a back pass from the halfway line wide of Alisson Becker and gifted Palace a corner. For the next 38 minutes the home side were on top.
The Liverpool full-back has experienced some rough moments at Selhurst and has named Zaha among his most difficult opponents. When the 20-year-old is allowed to range forward Klopp’s team are significantly more threatening. He drove into the box and sent in an awkward cross that Palace scrambled to clear. Yet once again Alexander-Arnold’s inexperience came to the fore. His crossfield ball was intercepted by Andros Townsend and although the winger’s cross was blocked, the rebound went to Cheikhou Kouyate, who picked out Jordan Ayew in yards of space in the area. It was a splendid opportunity for the striker but he screwed the ball just wide.
Hodgson’s side were on top but Liverpool pace and lurking menace was always evident. At the other end, Fabinho chipped a pass over the defence and it looked like Mane was about to score but the striker inexplicably missed the ball and Vicente Guaita gathered gratefully.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, in for Mohamed Salah, was marginalised on the left and switched with Mane in an attempt to gain more influence on the game but the change did little to improve his fortunes. Palace pressed hard and Klopp’s team were unable to impose their tempo on the game. The home side deserved to be in front at the interval.
That they did not was down to VAR. James Tomkins bundled the ball into the net at the back post from a corner but while Palace celebrated the Liverpool players swarmed around Kevin Friend. After an interminable delay, the referee awarded a foul for an Ayew push on Dejan Lovren. There was definitely a shove but it still felt like an injustice because the incident had no effect on the passage of play. It was the sort of thing that happens at almost every corner.
Liverpool made Palace pay within minutes of the restart. The warning signs were evident. Jordan Henderson, in the centre circle, released Mane, who shot wide. The Senegalese looked frustrated but his irritation would not last long. The home team, taking the same approach as in the first half, pushed men forward, inviting their opponents to break quickly. Andy Robertson was keen to join in the attack and when the ball was swept out to the left, the Scot sent a cross into the box. Mane had three defenders in his vicinity but was allowed enough space to fire off a shot. It was not the most convincing effort and Guaita got a hand to it but the ball limped in off the post. Palace looked deflated; four minutes into the second half they were trailing.
Liverpool were never quite comfortable but they had more of a grip on the game. The home side lost some of their impetus and fell into the trap of shooting from distance. Chances began to flow at the other end. Mane just missed getting his head on a corner as the ball whizzed across the box and Firmino curled a shot wide when running unchallenged into the area.
Palace had opportunities. Christian Benteke, on as substitute for Ayew, fired an overhead kick wide and the former Liverpool striker was instrumental in the equaliser. Benteke drove down the left wing and picked out Townsend on the edge of the box. The winger shifted the ball to Zaha, lurking in the inside right channel and the striker placed his low shot across Alisson. Selhurst exploded and with eight minutes left it appeared that Palace had a deserved point.
The joy did not last long. Three minutes later Virgil van Dijk barged a Liverpool corner towards goal but the ball ran towards James McArthur and Patrick van Aaholt. The defenders panicked and the clearance fell to Firmino inside the six yard box. The Brazilian netted with glee and Klopp’s “Mentality Monsters” had another late winner.
Zaha fired over the bar in stoppage time but the visiting side were not to be denied. Liverpool’s long, exhausting winter may have started but Klopp and his men left Selhurst with the warm glow of victory.